Levels and Types of Agency

Although believers may have a general understanding of divine agency, individual examples which account for the action of the divine can produce a detailed, organic picture of how a believer actually conceptualizes their beliefs in day-to- day interactions.

Levels of Agency

In metaphor, source domains tend to be concrete and tangible, and as a result, metaphor often renders abstract religious ideas more concrete, tangible, and amenable to manipulation in thought. Richardson (2012) has shown that figurative language in religious discourse is closely intertwined with agency. He divides into three different types religious statements that have a divine entity as a subject but involve the figurative movement of the believer. These are listed below along with examples taken from testimonials published in the 2015 and 2016 Christmas editions of the Evangelical Times.

Type 1: Directing—The divine entity points or directs or makes it possible for the believer to move in a specific direction and the believer then moves unaided in that direction. For example,“[tjhrough life’s ups and downs, he has been my light, my way and my wonderful Redeemer” (Gurung, 2016). Type 2: Shared movement—The divine entity and the believer are moving together with the direction controlled by the divine entity. For example, “Jesus did heal me and, since that time, he has led me in his service” (McKay, 2016).

Type 3: Being moved—The divine entity moves the believer. For example, “[ajfter this, I went through times of testing. However, the Lord brought me through and I began to read helpful Christian books” (Marley, 2015).

These examples can be better understood when contrasted with more theoretical statements about religious belief, such as that made by Antony Flew (2007) in his book detailing his switch from atheism to believing that God exists: “In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith” (p. 93). In this case, the focus is on the action of the human discoverer, while the divine entity is viewed as a static object and destination of the figurative pilgrimage. Working from this statement alone, the object does not do anything, and very little is assumed about its nature. By contrast, in all of the above examples, there are multiple layers of presuppositions that need to be in place for these expressions to be understood.These include:

A. A divine entity exists.

B. That divine entity is aware of the believer and has an interest in him or her and is both able and willing to actively intervene in that person’s life.

C. The believer is aware of the divine entity and can establish that certain events and experiences are caused or set in motion by that divine entity

These presuppositions are powerful as they are unstated and assumed to be obviously true. For religious belief to fulfill some of its key functions, such as establishment of a stable worldview, a concrete identity, and a sense of existential security, believers must continually move beyond theoretical statements about a divine entity to this sort of language related to action and relationships. This language must furthermore explicate the divine entity’s interaction with believers while bringing to light key inferences that involves.

Type 3 movement metaphors possibly suggest a stronger level of certainty than Type 1 and Type 2 metaphors. The reasoning for this is that a Type 3 degree of agency involves a believer’s perception (within the local temporal context of the statement) that complete control is being handed over to a divine entity, which could require a higher level of assumed certainty that the divine entity is a present reality However, this argument remains simply a hypothesis, and it is equally possible that once presuppositions A, B, and C have been activated and reinforced by the repeated use of type 1,2, or 3 movement metaphors, an equally high level of certainty can be achieved.

Additionally, the frequency with which these ditferent levels of agency are used also provides insights about how a believer conceptualizes divine agency. This can be viewed as an emergence of a type of theological grammar, constructing and tracking how believers conceptualize the divine by combining the meaning of their language with the grammatical constructions they employ. For example, an emphasis on Type 3 movement metaphors might reveal a conception of the believer as relatively passive and controlled by divine powers. A high frequency of such language might therefore be expected to occur in religious systems that emphasize divine grace over free will and the importance of human agency in securing salvation. Richardson (2012) found this when examining the language of a US-based Sunni Muslim website and testimonials from the Evangelical Times (which promotes the belief that Jesus died only for the elect). The relatively small sample sizes must be taken into consideration, but Type 3 movement metaphors were more than three times as frequent in the Christian testimonials. Various theological, personal, and historical factors could explain these results, such as the emphasis in Christianity on the importance of Christ’s death as an intervention in history that is mirrored in each Christian’s life, or the emphasis on divine grace over human free will in this particular form of Christianity. The study demonstrates how analysis of beliefs and agency patterns can reveal differences between religious conceptualizations.

In addition to movement metaphors, these principles can be carried over to other types of metaphor and to qualitative analyses that highlight the interaction between divine and human agency. Comparative analyses of agency can be particularly useful in revealing key differences between different believers in specific contexts. In Chapter 4, an extract from a conversation between Iain, a British Christian, and Adi, a Muslim from Oman, is analyzed in terms of metonymy and metaphor. It is worth focusing on another extract from the same conversation in order to examine how the two speakers use agency in different ways. The topic of the extract below concerns the aspect of their religion that made them feel certain that what they believed was the truth as well as what aspects they supposed would be central to their interlocutor. The extract begins with the Muslim participant asking the Christian how he arrived at a sense of certainty about his beliefs.

  • 1 Adi: so what /?/ arrive at certainty?
  • 2 Iain: Certainty
  • 3 you see I guess Christianity
  • 4 I guess it makes sense somewhere in here [taps his heart]
  • 5 if you know what I mean?
  • 6 Everything fits into place with it
  • 7 and the
  • 8 my certainty is based on basically the presence of God in my life
  • 9 hmm
  • 10 from a Christian point of view there’s quotes
  • 11 like Jesus says it basically
  • 12 “Behold I stand at the door and knock”
  • 13 which is like Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart
  • 14 and you have to let him
  • 15 you have to invite him in
  • 16 so you have to say OK
  • 17 yeah
  • 18 I want you
  • 19 I don’t want you to come into my life
  • 20 and have a relationship with you
  • 21 with God
  • 22 and that is what my certainty is based on
  • 23 that and the Bible being the word of God
  • 24 so you
  • 25 the presence of God and the word of God is basically what my certainty is based on

lain primarily attributes his certainty to the “presence of God”. This implicitly involves divine agency in that God is seen as choosing to place himself in proximity to believers in order to interact with them. This interaction between the believer and God is expressed by Iain in the figurative form of “knocking at the door of your heart”, which he introduces as a quote from the Bible (Revelation 3:20). This results in a perceived choice, where the human agent must decide whether to actively refuse entry or provide an invitation. The latter action triggers the next example of divine agency: God entering the believer and engaging in a relationship. This chain of actions forms a one-off, clearly remembered, highly emotive sequence of perceived events that characterize many Evangelical Christians’ conversion experiences. Evangelicals may talk about repeated experiences of feeling the presence of God, but the conversion experience is usually the only event which is marked with the specific image of Jesus knocking at the door. What is especially important to note here is that Iain chooses to lead with this sequence as the basis for his sense of certainty, rather than any other aspect of being a Christian.

Iain then addresses Adi and asks her what her certainty is based on. Both participants had been asked to guess what the other participant would say, and they had written their answers on pieces of paper that were then stuck to a board so that they could each read the other’s answers. Iain had guessed that Adi would say the Qur’an and the teaching of Mohammad. Adi was then faced with several choices: agreeing with Iain’s guess, engaging instead with his allusions to divine presence and the divine agent knocking at the door of the heart, or introducing a previously unmentioned basis for certainty. Her response follows:

  • 26 Iain: so what is your certainty based on?
  • 27 is it the Qur’an
  • 28 or is it teaching
  • 29 or
  • 30 Adi: Hnnn
  • 31 yeah
  • 32 the Qur’an first
  • 33 and teachings and reading about this religion in general
  • 34 because, as I told you, the more I read, the more I discover things
  • 35 that I hadn’t known before
  • 36 and even in the Qur’an, yeah
  • 37 I started reading it since I was young
  • 38 but still there are lots of things I haven’t discovered or noticed
  • 39 it’s like every day I discover something in the Holy Qur’an new
  • 40 that I haven’t noticed before

Adi begins with general conceptions of the importance of the Qur’an and other texts in terms of learning about Islam.The acts of being taught and reading refer to repeated behaviors stretching over the entire period of Adi being a Muslim, with the behaviors leading to increasing sophistication and depth over time. Divine agency is implicit in her reference to the Qur’an (which she accepts as the word of God) as the basis for her certainty. The focus on the teachings is ambiguous in terms of analyzing agency, because it is unclear whether she is referring to accompanying sacred texts like the Hadith as the teaching of God or to Islamic scholars teaching Muslims about the meaning of the Qur’an. An emphasis on her own agency in the process of developing her knowledge of the word of God can be seen in the use of “reading about this religion”, “the more I read”, “the more I discover”, “reading it since I was young”, and “every day I discover”. In summary: within this stretch of discourse, Iain describes the basis for his certainty as rooted in a perception of a one-off experience of divine proximity culminating in his becoming a container for the divine (inviting Jesus in) and initiating a relationship; whereas Adi’s describes the basis for her certainty as rooted in a very gradual, systematic, and active process of learning about and discovering the meaning of God’s word.

One way to account for these differences from a cognitive perspective is to draw on findings in the cognitive science of religion. Whitehouse (2000) proposes that the way religions are remembered and transmitted can be divided into two broad categories: imagistic and doctrinal. He distinguishes between these two modes by noting their differences in terms of 12 key areas spread over the psychological and sociopolitical features of religious practice. For example, the level of emotional arousal in the imagistic mode is high, while the level in the doctrinal mode is low. The imagistic mode relies primarily on episodic, flashbulb memory of specific situations, while the doctrinal mode relies primarily on systemized, abstracted semantic memory. In addition, the imagistic mode is based on internally generated intuitions, whereas the doctrinal mode is learned or acquired over time. In his assessment of this theory of modes of religiosity, Boyer (2005) argues that it should not be understood as applying to entire religious systems, but rather as a description of specific situations within particular religious systems.

Pyysiainen (2003) develops this further by focusing on the nature of conversion experiences. He points out that they are often highly emotional episodes that exhibit many imagistic features. However, they also exhibit doctrinal features because conversion stories are often repeated over and over again at different times and are couched in the official terminology of the religion. This can be seen in the case of Iain with his use of the common phrases, “the presence of God” and “Behold I stand at the door and knock”. Pyysiainen (2003) goes further in his discussion of conversion experiences, noting the key role of divine agency in the interaction between the imagistic and doctrinal components.

Conversion also is a way of establishing a personal relationship with the counterintuitive agent(s) as presented in the doctrine ... the emotional component is explained by the logical form of the event: when one experiences a conversion, one supposedly is the direct object of action of some counterintuitive agent; this creates the intimacy that triggers the emotions. Such conversion also often leads to frequent participation in various kinds of services and devotions, and thus revitalizes doctrinal religiosity.

(Pyysiainen, 2003 , p. 162)

The perception of being acted upon by the divine agent of a particular religious tradition is therefore the connecting point between imagistic and doctrinal phenomena. Also note the importance here of divine-human intimacy in conjunction with agency, which Pyysiainen (2003) also refers to as “superhuman immediacy” (p. 88).This latter expression is closer to Iain’s reference to the “presence of God” in that they are both underpinned by the intimacy is closeness conceptual metaphor.

The cognitive significance of Iain basing his certainty on a perceived interaction with a divine agent may be apparent, but Adi’s avoidance of similar language is also worth considering. Small comparative studies have demonstrated that certain types of Christian language can more frequently make use of proximity and inverted agency language (Richardson, 2012). Yet Muslim believers do still make references to divine agency and proximity, so it is necessary to offer some explanation as to why Adi would choose to focus on the gradual, systematic process of learning about and discovering the meaning of the Qur’an.

One possibility might lie in the immediate context of the conversation. Iain has just led with a very personal, subjective conception of being religious. Adi is possibly responding to the imagistic aspects of Iain’s description by choosing to emphasize the doctrinal aspects of Islam. Boyer (2005) argues that one of the advantages of the doctrinal mode is that it emphasizes distinct universal claims that do not vary from one group to another, and it thereby has a greater potential to unite larger populations. Adi may have been unaware of the doctrinal aspects of Iain’s language, particularly the fact that “the presence of God” is a common Evangelical expression and “Behold I stand at the door and knock” is a widely accepted way of talking about one’s conversion; she may therefore have only picked up on the imagistic dimension. If this is correct, Adi might be expected to avoid an emphasis on episodic divine agency and personal relationship language and instead confine herself to a focus on the doctrinal aspect of systematically developing her knowledge of the Qur’an.

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